Part of the draw of a romantic comedy, if you’re the kind of person who’s drawn to them in the first place, is its sunny predictability: the tropes are comfortingly familiar and the happily-ever-after ending preordained. It’s fair to say that I am generally not the kind of person who has a lot of affection for the genre, but there’s something tangy and satisfying about the way Rehana Lew Mirza’s Hatef**k plays with the formula. She gives you exactly what you expect structurally, but once you start peering closely at the details, the play unfolds a depth of interest in the erotic, the dynamics of power, and the competing cultural politics of American Muslims. The strains of rom com and intellectual rigor, of erotic charge and ideological clash, don’t always harmonize, and sometimes the schematics of the philosophical argument trip up the piece as much as the schematics of the romance plot, but it’s bracing and engaging throughout, energized by two strong performers with chemistry to spare.
Literature professor Layla (Kavi Ladnier) and prize-winning novelist Imran (Sendhil Ramamurthy) “meet cute,” for an acerbic value of cute: She’s “the only other brown person” at a book launch he’s hosting for an acquaintance. She loathes his work (critically lauded novels full of terrorist Muslim characters) but wants to understand why he wrote it (because they sell, and he’s more interested in being an example of Muslim success than writing exemplary Muslim characters). He dismisses her credentials (teaching the white canon to third-rate students at Wayne State) but wonders why he’s not on her syllabus (because she thinks he’s a hack who’s built his career on pandering to white expectations about Muslims, when he could be using his platform to do more for his community). She snoops around his apartment during the book party, and gets him straight into bed with a caustic mixture of insult and seduction. She wants to “fuck [him] into being a different person”…or, perhaps, into someone she can use for her own purposes.
Anshuman Bhatia’s set gives an instant read on Imran: converted industrial space full of mid-century modern furniture, bookshelves groaning with awards and a few elegant knicknacks among the books, a sleek and well-stocked bar, giant windows. He’s clearly successful but his space speaks a little more to the influence of Mad Men than to a sense of personal style. Layla is a little harder to crack: her clothes are elegant; her tone contemptuous–but she clearly has an agenda and it takes a while for Imran to figure out what it is.
They’re opposites who loathe everything about each other but can’t keep their hands off each other. Their relationship calls back to the classic fast-talking romances of classic Hollywood cinema, with a vicious, politicized edge; their bickers are about the relationship of gender and Muslim identity, about the place of Muslims in American culture. And instead of perky white twenty-somethings with quirky barista jobs and manic pixie dream friends, they’re forty-something South Asian Muslims, professionally accomplished, politically savvy, and intensely introspective.
At the same time, they’re both calculating—calculating the good they can do for each other, calibrating their attraction against their use value. Imran’s never-seen agent, Duncan, is always the third party in their triangle, someone who enters almost every conversation they have. Even as their relationship is aggressively sexual and smolderingly erotic, it always feels fundamentally transactional more than affectionate. Their professional ambitions far outstrip their emotional sides, even as they do romantically conventional things like exchange keys. There’s never a great deal of trust between them, and its absence is laid bare toward the end, when an encounter with Duncan (there he is again) turns ugly and reveals the way good old-fashioned American gender politics have been operating all along.
The play’s laser focus is both weakness and strength—it dives deep into the diametrically opposed ways two very specific people grapple with the politics of representation versus respectability politics; with the role and responsibility of artists from minority communities in majority culture; with the way gender politics always intersect with race politics; with the way people with nothing in common but their backgrounds negotiate difference. But at the same time, the issue-driven focus can hollow out the characters. The absence of exposition is bright and refreshing, but we end up knowing almost nothing about these people other than their politics and their ambitions. And their views are so starkly in opposition; there’s not a drop of ambivalence or ambiguity in either of them, nor a lot of willingness to negotiate outside the bedroom.
I lean toward feeling that focus may be a little too tight; there’s something oddly sterile about Layla and Imran’s relationship. Even when it’s incredibly steamy—which, don’t get me wrong, it is. A lot. Ladnier and Ramamurthy, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, have incredible chemistry, and Campbell-Holt exploits the size difference between the petite Ladnier and the tall, rangy Ramamurthy to toy with the link between sex and power. It’s a spiky, smart, tightly constructed piece of writing, with a rich understanding of irony–and yet I wish it were a little messier.
In a recent interview, African American playwright Jeremy O. Harris says, in response to criticism that his work is idea-driven rather than human: “I feel that argument is thrown a lot on black and brown work because we go to black and brown work for empathy and not for argument. The people want that work to teach us how to feel about others instead of allowing others to make us think.” Hatef**k storms its way out of that trap; it gives us characters who are driven primarily by their ideas. I wish those ideas had a little more give-and-take to them, but I can’t fault the play’s incisiveness, its heat, or its cleverness.